Diane Arbus

Two Female Impersonators Backstage, N.Y.C. 1961

1961, printed after 1971

Sorry, copyright restrictions prevent us from showing this object here

Not on display
Diane Arbus 1923–1971
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 220 x 145 mm
frame: 485 x 383 x 24 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008


Two Female Impersonators Backstage, N.Y.C., 1961 1961, printed after 1971 is a black and white photograph by the American photographer Diane Arbus. The image portrays two young, shirtless men standing against a black background. The man in the left of the frame stands at a three quarters turn towards the camera and wears a pair of dark jeans; the white band of his undergarment is visible over the hem. His right arm is bent at the elbow and held up to the level of his cheek, his fingers curled over in a loose, fist-like gesture, while his left arm, also bent at the elbow, is held across his chest, his hand resting on his left shoulder. His smiling face is turned to address the camera directly and his eyes look off just to the left of the lens. His eyebrows and lips are highlighted with dark makeup. The man on the right stands behind the other figure. He wears light trousers and stands with his body in profile and partially obscured by the shadow of the background. His left arm is bent at the elbow and rests on the other figure’s upper arm just above the elbow. His head is turned such that his gaze is off to the left of the frame, over the shoulder of the first figure. He also smiles and has dark makeup on his eyes, brows and lips.

Two Female Impersonators Backstage, N.Y.C., 1961 is a gelatin silver print on paper shot using a 35 mm Nikon SLR. The easily maneuverable size and small negatives of the Nikon SLR allowed Arbus to create images spontaneously, like this one which appears to capture a casual moment backstage between the two figures. To produce a sense of intimacy or familiarity in her images, Arbus would crop and manipulate her negatives to focus in on one aspect of a larger scene, and the clean edges of this image indicate that it was likely cropped down in this way. Later in her career Arbus would intentionally leave the bleed and blur of an uncropped edge intact, as in A Young Man in Curlers at Home on West 20th Street, N.Y.C., 1966 1966 (Tate AR00509). Around the time Two Female Impersonators Backstage was taken Arbus had begun to connect with her subjects over time, spending hours, days and sometimes years charming her way into the often exclusive or private communities that she was documenting. She would speak with and befriend her subjects, gaining their trust and teasing out personal details and revelations about their lives and identities. She kept in touch with many of the individuals she photographed, such as Bishop Ethel Predonzan (Bishop by the Sea, Santa Barbara, Cal. 1964 1964, printed after 1971, Tate AR00533) and Andrew Ratoucheff (Russian Midget Friends in a Living Room on 100th Street, N.Y.C. 1963 1963, printed after 1971, Tate AR00529), and would revisit and photograph them periodically over the years. This image was shot in the dressing room of Club 82, a drag venue in lower Manhattan that Arbus began visiting in 1958, the same time that she started frequenting the Hubert Dime Museum and Flea Circus, a renowned basement ‘freak show’ in Times Square.

Two Female Impersonators Backstage N.Y.C., 1961 touches on the contrast between public and private spaces, as well as the tenuous boundaries between theatrical characters and personal expression. Art historian Thomas Southall has remarked that this image demonstrates Arbus’s ‘dogged persistence [in] eventually [obtaining] permission to spend time in the dressing room, taking portraits of the performers while they applied their makeup and got into costume for the show’ (Southall 2004, p.153). Arbus’s presence in this backstage space implies a level of trust on behalf of the drag queens, as they allowed her not only to witness but also to photograph them in various states of undress as they composed their theatrical personae. The tension between the composition of the face and the figures’ state of undress suggests the mutability of gendered identity, a theme Arbus also explored in A Naked Man Being a Woman N.Y.C. 1968 1968, printed after 1971 (Tate AR00547), Topless Dancer in her Dressing Room, San Francisco, Cal. 1968 1968, printed after 1971 (Tate AR00549), Girl Sitting on Her Bed with Her Shirt Off, N.Y.C. 1968 1968, printed after 1971 (Tate AR00551) and A Young Man in Curlers at Home on West 20th Street, N.Y.C. 1966. In each image the subject appears in the midst of dressing or undressing, exposing the construction of identity to Arbus’s probing lens. In tackling such subject matter, Arbus exposed herself and her sitters to risk, as her images exposed those who might, especially in the early 1960s, have been considered deviant outsiders.

This photograph demonstrates Arbus’s fascination with private spaces and the conflict between illusion and reality, both common themes throughout her work. Although not part of a formal series this photograph exemplifies a point of transition in Arbus’s career. From 1946 to 1956 she worked a commercial fashion photographer with her husband, Allan. However, in 1956 the couple ended their partnership and Arbus began her own artistic career, at which point she began pursuing her fascination with individuals deemed unconventional at the time, which she named ‘freaks’. In 1961 she expanded her search for those on the outskirts of society, and in Two Female Impersonators Backstage N.Y.C., 1961 Arbus offers viewers an unsettling confrontation with the unfamiliar. This does not reside solely in the subject of the work, but in Arbus’s fascination with it. The cropped focus of the photograph, the refinement of the shot along with the distant gazes and defensive postures of the men relay the intrusiveness of the photographic portrait.

Further reading
Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel (eds.), Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph, New York 1972.
Sandra Phillips, ‘The Question of Belief’, in Diane Arbus: Revelations, exhibition catalogue, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco 2003, pp.50–66.
Thomas W. Southall, ‘The Magazine Years, 1960–1971’, in Thomas W. Southall, Diane Arbus: Magazine Work, New York 2004, pp.156–60.

Tessa Rosenstein
The University of Edinburgh
November 2015

The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.

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